Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Their Wildly Separate Paths to the Sixers
Ben Simmons wears the face of a kid getting dragged to Sunday school when he’d rather settle in for a Call of Duty marathon with friends. He looks the part, too, a neatly buttoned white dress shirt and skinny black pants clinging to his lanky six-foot-10-inch, 20-year-old frame. His teammates on the 76ers are within arm’s reach, laughing and joking as they go through a pregame practice in gray t-shirts and blue shorts at the Wells Fargo Center.
Simmons wants to be out there with them, but for the moment he can only hover at the edge of the court and stare at the gleaming maple floor and the UFO-size Sixers logo. Pockets of fans who show up early for this mid-December matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers start to notice him standing there — the savior in the flesh. Ben. Ben. Hey, Simmons! Bennnn! He turns and walks down a tunnel to the locker room, frustrated, injured, alone.
This isn’t how his first year in Philadelphia was supposed to unfold. He planned to show people why he’d been the number one pick in the 2016 NBA draft, why analysts and scouts had compared him to legends like Magic Johnson and LeBron James ever since he was old enough to grow a bad teenage mustache. Actually, this desire to show people what he can do has been burning since his childhood in Australia.
But we all know the only law on the books around here is Murphy’s. So of course Simmons stepped on a teammate’s foot during the final training-camp scrimmage in September and cracked a piece of the load-bearing part of his own foot. He was going to be out for three months, maybe more, and the franchise’s plan to begin crawling out from the shadows of its wretched Dark Age was put on hold. Or was it?
The house lights in the Wells Fargo Center go down. The team has just six wins at this point, but ESPN is televising the game, and the arena is packed. A little surge of excitement flickers as public-address announcer Matt Cord rattles off one booming player introduction after the next. The cheers grow loudest when Cord bellows the name of the guy who’s unexpectedly taken the league by storm: Joel Embiid.
At this point last year, Embiid was a seven-foot-two-inch question mark, the biggest gamble of The Process, former general manager Sam Hinkie’s star-crossed roster-building experiment. Embiid missed his first two seasons thanks, ironically, to foot injuries, and there was a palpable fear he’d turn out to be nothing more than the punch line to a trivia question.
But the imposing center is healthy now, and a certified sensation. He’s twice been named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, thanks to performances like this game against the Brooklyn Nets: 33 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals, all in just 27 minutes of action. He’s a force on both ends of the court, moving with a grace that belies his size. (Watch him channel Hakeem Olajuwon’s “Dream Shake” and you’ll feel your jaw slightly unhinge.)
The 22-year-old Embiid has given die-hard Sixers fans a reason to feel hopeful, and casual fans a reason to start paying attention to the team again. That’s partly because his appeal goes beyond his skills on the court; he’s also a social-media sensation who has attracted nearly a million followers with a playful self-awareness that’s rare in the micromanaged, focus-grouped-to-death world of professional athletes. “THE GOAT #HeDiedForOurSins #TrustTheProcess,” Embiid captioned an Instagram photo of himself and Hinkie — after Hinkie resigned last April. He flirted on Twitter with Kim Kardashian, then tried asking Rihanna out to dinner. “SOURCES: Rihanna is considering JOEL EMBIID offer,” he once tweeted. (He recently urged fans to vote him into the NBA All-Star game because “this famous girl” — Rihanna — told him not to hit her up until he was an All-Star.)
At some point soon, Simmons will be healthy enough to step onto the court alongside Embiid, and the franchise’s perpetually stalled rebuilding efforts will enter a new phase. The crowds should grow larger, the nationally televised games more frequent, the watercooler discussions more animated. The Sixers, in other words, will be relevant again. Such is the power of having two of the NBA’s most intriguing young talents on the payroll — players capable of attaining the kind of fame that transcends sports altogether and crosses into the general public’s consciousness.
But to really understand where Simmons and Embiid are capable of taking the Sixers — and the multibillion-dollar NBA machine they’re now part of — you have to take measure of the wildly different paths they traveled to get to this point: the child prodigy from Australia who was groomed for greatness, and the prankster from Africa who discovered his basketball prowess almost by accident.
BASKETBALL WAS NEVER part of the plan for Joel Embiid. He grew up in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, a West African country of 24 million sandwiched in between Nigeria and the Central African Republic.
When Embiid attended college in America years later, he convinced his peers he’d killed a lion in the jungle when he was just a boy of six. That the other guys bought the fib so easily tells you how vague their grasp of Cameroon — or any other part of Africa, for that matter — was. But instead of being offended by their ignorance, Embiid saw an opportunity to have a little fun at their expense, and maybe give himself a slight competitive edge. That mischievous spark would come to be his calling card.
In reality, he was raised speaking French in an upper-middle-class family in a city that houses 35 foreign embassies. His father, Thomas, is a colonel in Cameroon’s army and a former handball player. His mother, Christine, stayed at home with Joel and his younger siblings, Muriel and Arthur. Joel played soccer and toyed with the idea of pursuing volleyball professionally; the game would have let him take advantage of his long, ropy arms. But then Kobe came along. In 2010, a 16-year-old Embiid tuned in by chance to the NBA Finals and was transfixed by the athletes who ran across the screen — especially Bryant, who was putting together an MVP performance that helped lift the Lakers over the Boston Celtics. The athletes were thousands of miles away, but their hold on Embiid was instant, electric. This was a light-bulb moment, like the one millions of American teenagers had when they saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and realized they wanted to play the guitar.
There was a problem, though. Embiid had no idea how to dribble or shoot or do anything else remotely basketball-related. A local coach schooled him in the basics and gave him old tapes to study — clips of Olajuwon and other legendary big men from yesteryear, like David Robinson and Patrick Ewing. The giants reached out to him across time and space and showed him a future he’d never considered. If he could harness his size and athleticism, perhaps he could find a place for himself in America, in the NBA, in a game with ever-growing global ambitions.
A coach signed Embiid up for a camp run by Luc Mbah a Moute, a fellow Cameroonian who played for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Mbah a Moute stopped in his tracks when he laid eyes on Embiid for the first time. Who was this lean, lanky kid who ran and caught the ball with ease and seemed instinctively aware of everything happening on the court around him? “It stood out,” Mbah a Moute says now, “because I knew he had only been playing for a couple of months, and for someone who had only been playing for that long to be able to do all of those things was very impressive.”
Thomas Embiid wasn’t having any of it, though. He wanted his son to focus on school. He didn’t realize that the NBA prized gems like Joel who were waiting to be discovered overseas, or that an entire cottage industry existed solely to help those kids catch on in America. Others who saw Joel play, like Joe Touomou, a Yaoundé native who once played basketball at Georgetown University, realized where his skills could take him. According to a 2014 feature published on Grantland, Touomou tried to reason with Embiid’s father: “If you let him play basketball, he might not need to go to school. Someday he might be able to buy his own school.”
An invitation to an Africa-wide basketball camp followed, and then, in 2011, a scholarship offer from Montverde Academy in Florida. The private boarding school, located about 40 minutes from Disney World, is where basketball prodigies go to take their games to the next level. Embiid was given a chance to follow in the recent footsteps of Mbah a Moute, a Montverde alum from the early 2000s — to try and mirror the legacy of his idol Olajuwon.
On its face, this was a fantastic development. How many other high-school juniors get the green light to pursue a dream they’ve only just begun to build in the corners of their still-developing minds? If everything broke his way, Embiid could attain life-altering fame and fortune. But there was a price to pay for such an opportunity. Embiid had to leave behind everyone and everything he knew and move, alone, to America. He didn’t speak English, didn’t know his future teammates. Hell, he still really didn’t know that much about basketball.
FOR AS LONG AS those close to Ben Simmons can remember, he always had a basketball in his hands. “Little Benny” was a constant presence at the side of his father, Dave Simmons, a Bronx native who played ball at Oklahoma City University before moving in 1989 to Australia, where he starred as a six-foot-nine power forward with the Melbourne Tigers of the National Basketball League. (In what would prove a funny twist of fate, Dave met an assistant coach on the Tigers who would figure prominently in his son’s life down the road — an affable guy from Maine named Brett Brown.)
Dave’s basketball career was shifting toward its twilight phase by the time Ben was born in 1996. Ben was the baby of a large brood; Dave and his wife, an Australian named Julie, also have a daughter, Olivia, and four children of Julie’s from a previous marriage. When Dave hung out with his teammates, Ben was nearby in a stroller. By the time Ben was seven, he was in the gym with his old man, who was teaching him how to dribble with either hand. His older half-brothers showed him Allen Iverson’s signature crossover, which he mimicked to perfection. All fathers hope they’ll see their children climb higher than they did. Dave Simmons played 13 seasons in Australia, carving out a memorable niche as a tough-as-hell enforcer. But the NBL isn’t the NBA. If Ben could combine his natural talent with his father’s deep knowledge of the game, he could reach even greater heights. “When I was eight years old, I knew I was going to play in the NBA,” Simmons would matter-of-factly tell an interviewer years later.
“When he was about 10, I used to call him Shrek, because he was so much bigger than everybody else,” laughs David Patrick, a close family friend and Ben’s godfather. “Whether it was basketball or football, he was bigger and faster than the other kids. I think he pursued basketball because he hated the cold, hated the rain.”
By age 15, Simmons was on Australia’s under-17 national team. He was already adept at interviews, projecting a quiet confidence and offering clear and concise answers to questions people had about his future. Simmons started attending basketball camps in the U.S., including LeBron James’s Skills Academy in Las Vegas — open to only the top 20 college players and top 80 high-school players in the country. He found a mentor in James himself — one of the biggest stars on the planet.
James advised Simmons to always keep his family close. Then Klutch Sports Group — the agency founded by James’s close friend, agent Rich Paul — hired Simmons’s half-sister, Emily, for a marketing consulting job not long after King James and the Boy Who Would Be King started to bond. When Simmons had to hire an agent before he turned pro, guess which agency he chose to represent him?
It was clear that Simmons was on the fast track to stardom — and that he’d have to leave Melbourne and move to the States to take the next step. So midway through his sophomore year of high school, Ben Simmons, too, headed to Florida, to Montverde Academy, a season after Embiid. When Embiid had made this same move, he was uncertain if it was the right choice or where it would lead. Simmons wasn’t haunted by such inner turmoil. “I have to do this,” he told his mother. “Please don’t hold me back.”
EMBIID COULDN’T OUTRUN the truth: He had a lot to learn. Like, a whole, whole lot. His junior year at Montverde was anything but smooth; he was stuck on the JV squad, and even so, he struggled to find playing time. Basketball was his worst nightmare, he explained in the caption of an Instagram photo that showed him soon after he arrived in America, “CuzISucked.” The fun-loving character everyone knows today was nowhere to be found. Embiid was quiet and withdrawn, a stranger in a strange land, and his more experienced teammates pushed him around on the court.
Montverde coach Kevin Boyle recalls once sending Embiid to get a drink after he badly missed a handful of passes during a practice. His teammates started to chuckle — this was the kid from Cameroon that everyone had raved about? “I told them, ‘One day, he’s going to make $100 million,’” Boyle says. “He was very raw, but he had great feet, great hands, great attitude, great work ethic. You could see early on he was going to be a super player down the road because of those things.”
Mbah a Moute helped an unhappy Embiid transfer to the Rock School in Gainesville, Florida, for his senior year. He found a more comfortable atmosphere at the Christian school, and a team that had a handful of other players from Africa — plus a glaring need for a center. Head coach Justin Harden understood that his new player was still figuring out the game. “No one in our program has ever been as naturally gifted, especially with the coordination he has for a seven-footer,” Harden says. Once, he walked out of his office to find Embiid standing three feet back from the three-point line, banking shots off the backboard into the net with the ease of a guy tying his shoes. By the end of Embiid’s senior season, ESPN had him ranked number six on its list of the top 100 high-school basketball players in the country. In the blink of an eye, he’d gone from high-school enigma to top college prospect.
Embiid committed to the University of Kansas, where his off-court personality and on-court skills started to bloom. Jayhawks head coach Bill Self encountered the happy-go-lucky Jo-Jo that Twitter and Instagram users now celebrate. “He was just fun. If he didn’t want to answer a question, he’d act like he didn’t understand,” Self says. “Well, we found out later that he speaks, like, three and a half languages! He didn’t understand like a fox.”
The national media outlets started to pay close attention. They added up everything Embiid could do — block shots, grab rebounds, make tough defenders look helpless, all while moving with remarkable speed and fluidity — and realized the big guy might be a once-in-a-generation talent. Some suggested he could be the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, over his more polished Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins. “His basketball IQ is about as high as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Self says. “I’ve never been around anyone that’s played less and known more. He’s remarkable to watch.”
Embiid was a little unsure how to respond to the growing attention. “I don’t know if I feel like I’m ready for all of this,” he told ESPN in a remarkably frank moment a few months before the draft. One veteran NBA insider points out that getting drafted meant Embiid was going to have move for the fourth time in as many years. His family was back in Cameroon, and he didn’t have an Entourage-like posse following him from one American city to the next. He was making this journey alone, and inching closer to becoming part of a massive machine that he’d only recently become aware of. “He was very young. And I’m not just talking about age,” Self says. “He didn’t know how to eat healthy. I mean, he’d pass up a main course and go right to three chocolate cakes. He was innocent, in a way.”
DID YOU EVER SEE Iron Man make one of those dramatic fist-punch-the-ground landings in the Marvel movies? It’s a statement that basically says two things: 1) “I’m here now, motherfuckers”; and 2) “Watch what happens next.” That’s what Simmons’s arrival at Montverde felt like, after Embiid floundered at the same school.
He jumped feet-first into playing forward for the school during the second half of his sophomore year, helping the Eagles win the first of three straight national championships. The team went a combined 62-1 in his junior and senior years, both of which ended with Simmons being named MVP of the national tournament. He was anointed the number one high-school playerin the nation by ESPN, racking up more honors — National Player This, All-American That — than you could possibly remember. For Simmons, the accolades were just confirmation of what he’d known since grammar school: He was going to end up in the NBA. It was just a matter of when.
College teams intrigued by Embiid’s talent were practically hysterical over Simmons’s. The comparisons to Magic and James had already started to pour in, but Simmons was cool and collected. He stayed true to James’s advice about family; when the time came, he committed to Louisiana State University, where his godfather David Patrick was an assistant head coach. Dave and Julie Simmons had moved to America during their son’s senior year in high school, and their daughter Emily — she of Klutch Sports — served as a de facto manager who kept a sharp eye on every offer and inquiry that came her brother’s way.
Embiid might have been uncomfortable and uncertain at nearly every stop in America, but Simmons didn’t suffer the same fate. “One of the reasons he came to LSU was because he had a support system around him with myself and his family,” Patrick explains. “He could trust us to keep, as best we could, the outside noises away from him.” But the thrum that heralded Simmons’s ascension to the pros grew steadier, louder. LSU alum Shaquille O’Neal called Simmons “the best player in the world” in an Instagram post, and the university rolled out a messianic marketing campaign that included billboards with a young man’s torso and the words HE’S COMING.
Simmons also made some new buds as he transitioned from high school to college: his own roving film crew. His family had contacted Maggie Vision Productions, a New York-based production company that handles the ESPYs, to see if they’d be interested in shadowing Simmons’s senior year at Montverde and the single year he’d spend at LSU leading up to the 2016 NBA draft.
The ensuing documentary, One & Done, aired on Showtime. The network has a collection of other sports documentaries, but they’re typically about athletes who have been around the block and then some: New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, former NFL running back Lawrence Phillips, Iverson. Simmons was just 18 when his story was committed to film.
There are a couple of ways to look at this aspect of Simmons’s career. The documentary, coupled with his choices of an agency where his sister worked and a college where his godfather coached, gives the impression that his every move is being carefully stage-managed by his family. Professional sports is a business first, and viewed through that lens, Simmons, Inc., is a well-run enterprise. Showtime has more than 23 million subscribers; most have probably noticed the documentary on their menu screens, which means they’re now aware of a prodigy named Ben Simmons even if they’re not basketball fans. One & Done shows him dispassionately weighing a shoe-contract offer from Adidas, which enlisted celebrities like Snoop Dogg to help recruit him. Simmons ultimately chose Nike, which dangled a bigger deal — worth up to $40 million — and the chance to join its roster of stars: Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, James.
On the other hand, as Simmons’s sister notes at one point during the documentary, there’s no shortage of sharks looking to carve up a promising young star like Simmons. As his relatives see it, their job is to help him make smart choices.
In moments in the film, the life of a young guy who’s been marked for greatness seems to wear on Simmons. He’s hounded by fans when he’s out shopping, and heckled by students from other universities and haters on social media. Adulation, he realizes, is a poor substitute for intimacy. “I know people who want to try to be my friend because I might be in the NBA, I might have a nice contract and be on TV and [be] famous, but I’m not friends with anybody,” Simmons says in one scene.
“At first he came off to me as shy and quiet, but I learned he’s not shy as much as he was observing and learning,” says One & Done director Maura Mandt. “He certainly has a personality, but you’ve got to get to know him before he lets you in.”
In the film, Simmons is largely serious and cerebral and not terribly awed by each new level of fame or success that he achieves. At times, he unleashes his inner frustrations — with the NCAA, for not compensating college athletes it earns millions from, and with the NBA, for forcing him to pretend to be a college student for a year because of a silly, perfunctory rule. Juggling practices, photo shoots and classes takes a toll. “It’s overwhelming,” he says at one point. “There’s no time to relax.”
Meanwhile, Simmons’s brother Liam chides him for insufficient gratitude. “You haven’t had anything remotely, like, tragic happen in your life,” Liam tells him. “The real challenge is, you’ve had everything laid at your feet. Can you grasp the magnitude of the opportunities that are before you, that a million other players will never have in a lifetime?”
IT HADN’T BEEN an easy couple of years, but the carrot that made Embiid climb on a plane and leave Africa behind was finally within his reach. The 2014 NBA draft drew closer, and if nothing else, it seemed likely to offer him some consistency in his life: one team, one city, more time to grow into the game-changing player scouts now largely agreed he could be. But then he watched it almost go to hell.
A stress fracture in his back cost him his final month of play at Kansas. The prognosis was good — he’d heal just fine, without surgery — but the specter of a big man with a bad back made some teams nervous. Then an even worse injury surfaced a few days before the draft: a fractured navicular bone in his right foot.
After everything he’d endured — leaving his family, assimilating to life in America, trying to prove the doubters wrong — this was a cruel twist right before the finish line. His draft stock should have plummeted, but the Sixers’ Sam Hinkie saw a good investment opportunity and selected Embiid with the third overall pick. A few months later, though, tragedy struck. Embiid’s brother Arthur, then 13, was accidentally killed by a truck in Cameroon. Embiid hadn’t seen him in four years. “That was really rough in ways that words can’t describe,” says one NBA insider. “To have a tragedy happen in your family that’s borderline unbearable, and you’re in America, and all of the people you know and love are in Africa … He’d only been with the team for a few months, so he hadn’t even had much time to bond with anybody.”
There were more troubles. After missing all of the 2014-’15 season, Embiid had a second surgery on the same foot and missed the following season, too. He described those lost years to Sports Illustrated by comparing himself to one of the loneliest characters in fiction: “I was a vampire.” He briefly toyed with the idea of quitting the NBA altogether and returning to Cameroon.
Other players wrestling with such darkness might have plunged into perpetual silence, hoping people would forget about them. But Embiid found a silver lining by turning to Twitter and Instagram to engage with supporters, detractors, and just about anyone else. The self-deprecating humor he showed is almost startling, given how fragile we assume a professional athlete’s ego to be. He regularly joked that he and his social-media followers all had the same number of NBA points — zero — leading up to the 2016 preseason.
He wore his own number 21 jersey out to clubs in Philly. He arm-wrestled Justin Bieber and made fun of teammate Nerlens Noel’s long fingers. He adopted The Process as his official nickname and convinced the Sixers to add it to his pregame introduction.
“I don’t know that basketball has a lot to do with his personality,” Bill Self tells me. “He’s carefree, and I think he’s hilarious. He’ll be a real breath of fresh air for the organization.” The fact that his foot healed well enough to allow him to play this season seems like an act of divine mercy.
There’s no question Sixers brass are delighted by what they’ve seen so far, even when Embiid instinctively does the wrong thing, like taking technical foul shots when he’s not supposed to, as he did during the preseason. “At times, he reminds me of a, you know, yearling,” Brett Brown says. “He wants to score. He wants to dominate. How about that passion that he plays with? You can’t coach that. And he has it. And that passion and, you know, desire, Philadelphia’s going to love him.”
I DON’T HAVE TO go far to catch a glimpse of what the Sixers hope Embiid and Simmons can do for the franchise. No, really; Allen Iverson is standing just a few feet in front of me about an hour before the December game against the Lakers gets under way.
He’s here chatting up a roomful of reporters, ostensibly because the team wants to honor his recent induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. But there’s more to it than just nostalgia. There are parallels between the Iverson era and whatever we’ll end up calling this current iteration of the Sixers.
Iverson transformed a moribund organization after the Sixers made him the number one overall pick of the 1996 draft. He carried the team to the 2001 NBA Finals, sure, but his worth extended well beyond wins and losses. He was a pop-culture icon in many ways, from the do-rags, gold chains and throwback jerseys he wore to the megawatt swagger that defined his persona. Hell, “We talkin’ about practice” was practically the world’s first meme. Iverson gave the organization a cultural cachet it hasn’t come close to replacing since his tenure in Philly ended the first time a decade ago.
If the cards fall the right way, Embiid and Simmons will have a chance to give the Sixers that same badly needed shot of adrenaline. The front office will first have to figure out exactly how to build around the two young franchise players, a task that has so far been addressed in fits and starts thanks to an assortment of injuries and puzzle pieces left over from Hinkie’s regime, like a glut of towering centers.
For now, Embiid and Simmons are young and friendly and rich and famous, and everything about their tenure has that new-car smell. But you wonder how their egos will mesh; up until this moment, both have been accustomed to being The Guy.
When the Sixers’ first game of the season wrapped up in late October, a crowd of about two dozen journalists swarmed Embiidinside the team’s locker room. He seemed unfazed by the frenzy, breezily conducting one interview in French before slipping into a pair of eye-catching gold shoes. He was the picture of a guy having fun with a moment in time. A few hours earlier, an injured Simmons met with those same reporters. He was solemn and put-together in a tan suit. A loop of similar questions unfurled his way: When will you return? How do you feel about starting your career this way? One of his answers, delivered in a flat, even voice, could double as a summary of the roads he and Embiid have traveled so far: “It’s a blessing and a curse.”
Published as “Separate Paths” in the February 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.